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Alan DickmanAlan Dickman

Professor Emeritus, Environmental Studies and Biology

"Less is more. It is easy to forget how hard it is to learn a new subject especially when it is one that you have known well for a long time. Put yourself in the position of being a beginner sometimes and think about your teaching from that perspective. I learn as much about teaching by taking piano lessons as I learn about piano."

I teach a range of courses from large lower division general education lecture classes, to upper division laboratory courses, to graduate seminars. For the last three years, I have been teaching a large (250 students) general education course called Introduction to Environmental Science, taken mostly by non-science majors. I also teach an upper division lab/lecture/field course called Forest Biology. This class is limited to two lab sections of 24 students each. This past fall term, I taught the first term of the graduate core courses for the Environmental Studies Program to ten first year graduate students in Environmental Studies.

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What inspires you to teach? What do you love about teaching?

I am fortunate to be able to teach about subjects that interest me deeply: forest ecology, environmental science, and interdisciplinary thinking about environmental issues. Some of what I teach doesn’t change much from year to year: wood anatomy and water movement in trees, for example. But I enjoy getting others to think about and understand patterns in nature explained by these concepts such as why oaks put out leaves later in the spring than maples and why white oak is used for wine barrels, red oak is used for railroad ties, but maple makes better cutting boards.

Other aspects of what I teach change more frequently: forest management policies that are based on biology, is a good example. Fifteen years ago, lots of student wanted to know more about spotted owls. They’re still important, but today we’re likely to spend more time learning about thinning of young stands. I enjoy the chance to keep up-to-date on changes in my field, and teaching about them is a good way for me to do that.

As a student, I got decent grades, but I wasn’t a prodigy. I appreciated teachers that could explain complicated concepts in ways that made sense to me, and I enjoy thinking about how to do that for others. I relate to students who are interested and willing to work, but don’t get concepts immediately.

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What teaching approaches, methods, techniques, etc. have you tried? What have you learned from these experiences?

I’ve learned that there is a lot more to teaching than finding the right approaches, methods, and techniques. This isn’t to say that learning about teaching methods doesn’t matter – it matters a lot. But it takes more than a good technique for me to feel that I am being successful as a teacher. I think about teaching a lot –both in abstract ways such as what should grades mean or do, but also in the very practical sense of how can I best get students to understand this concept in class tomorrow. I accept that I will always be able to make improvements, and that even if I end up teaching a concept in a similar manner from one year to the next after having puzzled about it, it helps me to do a better job if I think about how I’m going to teach it each time.

I teach a lot of large classes; they have challenges that are different from smaller classes. Organization is really important in a big class as it is much harder and more work for everyone (the students and the teacher) if you try to change an assignment after it has been given, for example. And if you get off on the wrong foot early on, it is harder to change course. But large classes have advantages, as well. There is a wider and more diverse knowledge base and set of experiences among your students that you can draw upon.

But even in large classes, there are many ways to engage students in their learning. I like to think about “minds-on” activities, as opposed to hands-on activities. If I can ask a question that students care about and that takes some thought to solve, they are very willing to do that with peers in large lecture settings. Then, when we talk about the topic as a large class, they are more engaged with it. In most “lectures” I am able to give students questions or activities such as this to work on at multiple points during class.

Pictures help to get complicated ideas across, too. There is a classic experiment in population ecology that used oranges as habitat for mites (tiny arthropods) to understand the importance of habitat heterogeneity. I remember a student, many years ago, who wrote about mice living on oranges, and I wondered how much of biology must have been a strange fantasy kind of world that made just as much sense as the idea that a mouse could spend its life living on a rotting orange along with a bunch of its family. Today, it would be a snap to show a picture of the experimental set up. And I think it might have helped that student to understand how rotting oranges could serve as mini ecosystems for mites. Google images has been a boon to my ability to find and show images to help convey ideas.

Less is more. It is easy to forget how hard it is to learn a new subject especially when it is one that you have known well for a long time. Put yourself in the position of being a beginner sometimes and think about your teaching from that perspective. I learn as much about teaching by taking piano lessons as I learn about piano.

Many students would be willing to work hard, but don’t know how to study, so they don’t. They appreciate homework assignments that count for part of their grade, and most will do these, even if they are a small percent of the grade, especially if it turns out that they help them to do better on exams.

Help students to think about what works in their studying. Help students to see the big picture. Some students spend a lot of time studying minute details but don’t understand how large concepts relate. Have them draw concept maps of the material, or of an article. Ask them at the start of class to recall three or four important major ideas from the last class period. Get them in the habit of doing this outside of class and being prepared to answer this question in class.

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What advice, insights, etc. would you share with beginning university instructors?

Get to know your students; you don’t have to be good buddies to do this. I am fortunate that my classes are conducive to field trips. Whether it is riding in a van to a forest, or walking across campus to look at trees or bioswales, I get a much different sense of who my students are and what they care about when I talk to them informally like this.

If you are so lucky has to have a classroom with no class in it for the 20 minutes prior to the start of your class, arrive early and visit with students. Ask them about their major, their other classes, the homework you assigned, the weather, etc. You will be amazed what you learn about your students and how it affects your ability to teach.

Get to know their names. I take pictures of each student and learn all their names if the class is not too large. In a huge class with discussion sections, I ask TAs to take pictures. I don’t learn the names of 250 students but I learn 30 or 40 and it is amazing what that does for them but also for the others in the class. Be prepared, though – you may be asked for a letter of reference in a couple of years from a student who thinks you know them well because you learned their name in a large class.

Send emails to students after the first quiz. To those who did really poorly, explain that you want them to succeed, but that they aren’t doing well and that you’d be happy to look over the test with them and talk about study techniques. Equally important, send an email to those who have excelled. Congratulate them on their performance, and invite them to visit you in office hours to talk about their academic goals, career ideas, or things they care about. I’ve found that students really appreciate this kind of attention, especially in large classes, and it helps my outlook to talk to these students as well as to the ones who are struggling.

Have students complete a midterm survey of your teaching as a way to find out what students think about the class and to find possible ways to improve the class now, or for the next time you teach it. Take their responses seriously, but not personally. Change those things you can change and agree might be better. Explain the ones you cannot or don’t feel that you should. For example, I post lecture slides after each class. Students sometimes ask me if I would post them before class instead. I don’t, partly because I don’t always do everything I have available in my slides, but more importantly, because a lot of what we do in class is asking questions and working on those ideas before I offer additional insights. If we were to shorten the process by just giving my comments on the questions, I think they would not learn as much.

Make use of the life experiences students have relevant to the class. When I talk about fisheries and overharvesting, it helps if there is someone in the class who has worked in Alaska on a fishing boat. The rest of the students in the class listen attentively to one of their peers who has this kind of first-hand knowledge, and it often does wonders for that person to be seen as an authority (especially if that person is a nontraditional student uncertain of his or her place on campus.)

Enjoy teaching and try to make class enjoyable for students. Our job is not to entertain nor to make students happy, but to educate them. But I’ve found that it is much easier to teach students who are enjoying class than those who are frustrated, bored, or antagonized. My most recent foray into having fun is to invite students to send me a link to a song that is pertinent to an upcoming lecture. I play it while people are coming in to class. Not only do I get to check to make sure the sound system is functioning, but we all get to listen to music, and sometimes the songs they find are funny, poignant, or add new meaning or perspective to the lecture.

The amount of time students study, and their perceptions of how much effort the class takes, aren’t the same thing. Students will be willing to expend more effort if assignments are clear, due dates given well in advance, and they understand the value of the assignment. But if assignments are ambiguous, assigned at the last minute, and their purpose is not clear, then students might feel that even a small amount of time working on them is wasteful, and they can resent it.

Relate to your students as people with important and complicated lives. Be polite to that person waiting on your table or helping you at REI and assume that he or she is or was a student in your class; I’m surprised at how often they are. In a class of 250, there will be several students with personal crises – serious illness, depression, and death in the family. Nearly always when a student tells you about one of these things it is valid. Imagine how many are going through similar problems and not saying anything to you. Be compassionate.

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